180 days of policy – NSW's Policy Lab six months on

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The NSW Policy Lab use human-centred design to create policy that keeps up with modern problems. With six months of work behind them, they reflect on what they’ve achieved.

Six months ago, we embarked on something new for government: a dedicated whole-of-government policy lab practicing human-centred design (HCD). Using agile methodologies and modelling a new approach to designing public policy, our aim was (and is) to help transform how the NSW government approaches digital systems and services.

We started off a little uncertain, but with plenty of drive to make change. Six months later, with six projects under our belt and four in flight, we’re hitting our stride. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved in a short period of time, but there are things we’d do differently if we had our time again. We’d like to share some of the things we’ve learnt so far.

What worked

Pairing human-centred design and public policy

In the early days we raised a few eyebrows by using methodologies more common in software development and service design than public policy. But the approach has been a resounding success. Using HCD put the user at the centre of the policy development, allowing for accurate problem identification, meaningful co-design, iteration and a policy implementation that we know will solve the problems that users face. For example, working with rules drafters across the NSW government helped us better understand the different approaches and work cultures that influence how rules and laws are prepared. This helped us design more effective ways to code those rules in our Rules as Code project.

Backing from the boss

The support we had from our senior leaders – particularly Pia Andrews – was vital. The user-centred research approach takes time – with support from the top, we had the time and space to work ambitiously. We were able to take risks, experiment and bring non-believers on the journey with us. We were able to be proactive and take on long-term projects, rather than act reactively.

Working in the open

Blogging, tweeting and making most of our work public was vital. Working out loud helped us connect with users, stakeholders and potential collaborators. We made friends across NSW, Australia and the world. We’ve built relationships, collaborated and shared experiences and expertise. In policy areas that are emerging globally, these connections are integral.

Power to the people
We have team members who trained in HCD at the inception of the Policy Lab, and those that came in with HCD experience. We have team members who are skilled in a range of disciplines, and the diversity of the team helped us think broadly and deeply. The common factor supporting our success is having people with flexible minds who were curious and excited about solving problems.

What did we learn?

Always be iterating

Like all good innovators, we learned from things going wrong, re-evaluating and then doing it better. For some things, we went through multiple iterations before we were satisfied – for example, the first published version of our pitch deck was version 11. But you ‘can’t let perfect be the enemy of good’ — get the product out there and start delivering value, and then keep iterating.

Many hands make light work

How many people do you need on a project when you are using HCD? We found this a challenging question over the last six months and still do. If you’re running several workshops or dozens of user interviews in a short period, you can find yourself stretched very thin very suddenly. We found we need to be flexible and able to expand project teams as required and on short notice. Regular sprint planning sessions, project stand-ups and retrospectives have helped us anticipate resource requirements, but this is still something we could be better at.

Tyranny of distance

For the last few months we’ve had access to a small innovation space to host projects, hold workshops, display artefacts and immerse ourselves. It’s been invaluable for some of our more intensive projects, like the development of our Internet of Things framework. But we had to slice up the team with some team members in one location and the rest 14 floors away – making people feel isolated and disconnected. We tried different techniques to combat this (like using Slack for communicating and meeting regularly to share learnings and collaborate) but a single, dedicated venue for the whole team would be better for cohesion and collaboration.

What’s next?

In the new Department of Customer Service (DCS) structure, Policy Lab is moving from the Digital Government, Policy and Innovation branch to the Office of the Secretary. We’re still working out what that will mean for our project and our workplan, but our core commitments are the same. And our HCD approach makes perfect sense in the DCS. We’ll continue to work to transform public policy by putting customers and users at the centre of our policy design process. We’ll look to build the optimistic future – exploring what we think should be done, not just what we think can practically be achieved.

We look forward to seeing how far we get in another six months.

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